Ms. JD

What Men Missed When They Missed The Catalyst Release of “Women of Color in US Law Firms”

By Brande Stellings, J.D. and Jennifer Kohler

It was easy to talk to the men in the audience at the Catalyst release event for our latest research report, Women of Color in US Law Firms. There were only two. In retrospect, while the event was successful – bringing together a wide array of practitioners from the government, public, and private sector – almost all the attendees were women. Something is wrong with that picture.

Undoubtedly, these women are well-positioned to make change; many are senior partners and others hold influential positions within local government. Nevertheless, considering that men hold 82% of the partnership positions at law firms, it was discouraging not to see more men attending an event designed to provide insight into the experiences of one quarter of their firm’s women associates. And frankly, it wasn’t smart business.

We know women of color are entering and graduating from law schools in increasing numbers, but more than 75% of women of color associates leave their firms by their fifth year. Previous Catalyst research has demonstrated that when a lawyer leaves a firm, the cost to the employer is equal to, or even greater than, their total annual salary and benefits.

We also know that:

  • Clients are diverse and are pressing law firms to provide teams which better reflect this diversity.
  • In a service industry where the knowledge and skills of your workforce represent the product for sale, you need to draw from the best of the talent pool; women of color represent a significant portion of this overall pool, about 25% of all women associates
  • Research shows that diverse teams, well managed, yield better results: Catalyst research found that companies with higher percentages of women in leadership positions, on average, financially outperform those with fewer women in leadership roles

Now, our newest research perhaps sheds light on why so many women of color are leaving their firms, after hefty investments in their education and training – in short, they feel uniquely disadvantaged. This comprehensive study of over 1200 attorneys at the top 25 law firms in the U.S. finds that women of color often experience the workplace as exclusionary and feel like outsiders in their own firms. They receive little candid and constructive feedback and a lack of development opportunities. And while, according to NAWL, over 97% of law firms have a women’s initiative, law firms routinely ignore the impact of intersectionality – the intersections of gender, race, and ethnicity that create unique experiences for individuals – which results in imperfect execution of initiatives. Of the four groups surveyed in this study, women of color were also, not surprisingly, the most likely to report that diversity efforts within their firms were ineffective.

So, women of color are an increasingly significant part of the equation for the bottom-line success of law firms, and yet, feel excluded, receive little in the way of useful feedback, and little in the way of development. There’s more. The event was attended by several junior women of color associates, who are shown to leave their firms at a higher rate than other associates, due in large part to their lack of influential mentors. “Who you know” has a major impact on job-related decisions and career advancement within the law firm setting. As one of woman of color associate who participated in our research described it, “Being smart and being hardworking [isn’t] enough [for minorities]…At the end of the day…having the right relationships and having worked on the right projects [are] the most important indicators of whether someone is going to make it here.”

The critical importance of engaging women of color through active dialogue, thoughtful and strategic career development opportunities, and by building sustainable professional relationships through mentorship is almost immeasurable…only we’ve already offered data demonstrating their very measurable impact. Men simply must act as allies in helping women of color advance, not just for the good of their respective firms, but for the good of the legal profession as a whole.

One of the two male partners attending our event attributed the low male attendance to the challenge, in general, around getting lawyers to attend “extracurricular” events. Maybe so, but then it shouldn’t be so deeply gendered, should it?

Or is apathy to blame? In Catalyst’s recent research on engaging men as diversity champions, we learned that a highly effective antidote to apathy is combating a zero sum mindset. This can be accomplished by helping male attorneys grasp the impact of women of color associates on their bottom line and the future sustainability of their firms.

Ironically, what was right with the picture at the event was a robust and diverse mix of women leaders in law. This time it was the men who were missing. Join us next time?

Brande Stellings, Senior Director, Advisory Services, leads Catalyst’s practice in the legal profession. Jennifer Kohler is an Associate in Advisory Services. Catalyst is a nonprofit organization working globally to expand opportunities for women and business.

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